In the very early days comfort options were simple. On the first inter-city passenger line – Stephenson’s Liverpool and Manchester – there were three classes. The most expensive seats were indoors in a kind of stagecoach. Three compartments stuck together were mounted on a four-wheel *Pacer-style chassis. Comfort came in the form of upholstery. Once you were in the compartment with maybe six or seven or so random fellow-travellers then you were there until it stopped. No heat. No toilet. No refreshments. But you did have a first class and well-moneyed clientele as travelling companions.
Being more affordable second class had fewer comforts. It was a wagon with wooden benches and a roof. There was lots of air.
Cheaper still third class had even fewer comforts. No roof. According to artwork from the time there was a lot of standing up. And there was no guarantee of safety from hot cinders thrown by the locomotive or from any other missiles, rain, snow, or debris.
But it was the sumptuous first class – the model for the gentry – that was to become the design standard in all classes with a tweak or two to make the cheaper options less desirable. First class always offered, above all, space, and separation from those masses. But compartments entirely independent of one another with doors on both sides of the train had no facility to allow passengers to move to another compartment. And they became the suburban railway carriage as default.
There were four decades of murder-free travel on Britain’s railways before the killing of Mr Thomas Briggs. Once in his isolated first class compartment between Hackney and Bow, on the night of Saturday July the ninth 1864, with his valuables and a homicidal robber, Briggs couldn’t escape. Ultimately the man found to be his killer – Franz Müller – was also unable to escape.
He was hanged publicly at Newgate – with massive crowds of spectators arriving via the new underground railway. The Metropolitan station at Farringdon Road was convenient for such events. Thomas Briggs’ legacy to the world was legislation that mandated the communication cord – the passenger alarm – a progressive form of comfort. But the slight frisson of fear connected with the non-corridor compartment lasted for another century. Isolated compartments, a few reserved for safety as ‘Ladies Only’, vanished in the 1970s.
Today stations like Baker Street look very much as they did when passengers were mobbing trains to get to the execution of the wretched Mr Müller. It’s wide, generous, built originally for dual-gauge – both Stephenson’s four foot eight and a half inches and Brunel’s broad-gauge of seven feet and one quarter of an inch.
The battle of the gauges had been brought to an end by the Railway Regulation [Gauge] Act back in 1846. It made certain that Stephenson’s little trains from the North East coalfields would become ‘standard’. Bridges, stations, and whole towns were built in response and our trains in Britain will forever be a maximum of around nine feet and six inches [2.89 metres] wide if they want to go everywhere on the system. The benefits of all that Brunelian space for passengers must have been lovely. But broad gauge had gone completely by 1892 and at Paddington you can today see how much more roomy it was by the space that’s still there today between the tracks.
By the time Chicago streetcar baron, financier, and ex-convict Charles Yerkes grabbed control of the the underground around 1900, the City and South London had already set a dubious comfort standard for deep-level travel on carriages that passengers liked to call ‘padded cells’. Windows were an un-necessary luxury and whilst later cars did feature and retain the benefit of glazing, the longitudinal bench seating arrangement with passengers facing each other across the car had already arrived and stayed. Twenty-first century deep-level tube trains remain very small, constrained by those original tunnels, whilst passengers today are much larger in almost every dimension and continue to grow. Tiny trains and the physics thereof are also what has created the discomfort caused by the infamous deep-level heat in the London clay as well as making the installation of air-conditioning so very difficult to do. [For really really teeny tiny underground trains try the Glasgow Subway!]
Yerkes had stood on the summit of Parliament Hill Fields and had seen the prospect of London sprawling out by metro train way beyond the visible city. The Metropolitan line with its full size loading gauge profile was able by 1910 to offer dining aboard their Pullman cars ‘Galatea’ and ‘Mayflower’ – space, luxury and exclusivity a select few could buy. But for most the trade off of country living was a crowded commute to city work.
There are still some small comforts. For all its indignities the Underground is still kinder on the bottom than most metro systems –wipe-clean plastic seating is really not good enough for London – only branded ‘moquette’ will do.
Out on the main line corridors and inter-vehicle connections were required for all those things that were no longer just ‘nice to have’. Access to the dining car. Access to the toilet. Access to security and sometimes for escape from fellow travellers. But it took up, and does take up valuable passenger space.
The letters pages of newspapers have been full for a century and more of space saving and creative ideas that of the ‘why don’t they just’ kind. But then so often our old frenemy, physics, pops up and answers the question in three dimensions. In 1949 the genuinely clever Oliver Bulleid of the Southern made real the British double-deck train fantasy. Despite hellish discomfort and extended station waiting times two experimental double-decker commuter trains lasted in service until 1971. They remained a concept so flawed for the British system that it was as if Bulleid had built it to demonstrate that it couldn’t possibly make sense or work in any practical way.
Outside of commuting or wartime, standing up to travel on a long-distance train, or for that matter sitting on the floor, is relatively recent. Since privatisation passenger miles have doubled. By 2019 usage was back to the numbers carried in 1929 but this on a system only half the size [yes, OK, the half that went missing was the least heavily trafficked]. Trains that had carried fresh air around the country became rather full. And most travellers seemed to want to travel at the same time of day. So every upgrade and new design was one that involved a little less space for each passenger. There was less space for tables. There was less space for a dining car. There was less space for a buffet car – [none now on GWR]. There was less space for luggage – [LNER are having to convert some seats to more space for cases and bags]. And ultimately there was even less space for the thickness of the seats themselves.
Stemming the bleeding from rail to road in the 1970s the brilliant HST InterCity 125 had delivered seating luxury with four passengers around a table in standard. And there was even more space up in first class. An eight-coach set with a power car at each end carried around 450 passengers seated. The universally upgradable train in its GWR high-density variant was by 2010 carrying more than a hundred more seats. Seats had gone ‘airline’ and like seats on real airlines, pitch, the distance between each seat had shrunk to the absolute acceptable, or unacceptable, minimum – all whilst humans on the Great Western kept getting larger – just as they were doing down the Underground.
Bottoms weren’t getting bonier but there was much complaint about the seating in the trains that replaced the 125 on the GWR and on the East Coast. Padding was down to a minimum in the government specification. Officially the issue was safety – fire resistance – everything on the Hitachi Inter City Express is designed for bums on seats. Not an ignoble motivation when passengers were often left standing for more than a hundred miles. The seating on the Hitachi Azuma and IEP trains however was luxury when compared to the spartan specification on Thameslink’s Class 700 family where most capacity, maybe up to 2000 persons in crush mode, is standing. Regulars coined the unkind term ‘ironing boards’ for the narrow, thin-backed, upright seats that you would have sit in for a tube-style short trip or all the way between Cambridge and Brighton. But design was about moving as large a number of people as possible.
Our British need for speed had been undertaken without much in the way of new lines. And without building any of those expensive new railways, trains in the last thirty years got just a little bit pokier. Bizarrely, tilting trains meant less space for the passenger. If British trains are to tilt then the sides of the carriages must slope inwards if they are not to sideswipe a train coming the other way. There’s not a lot of space between the ‘up’ and the ‘down line! So if it feels like you are close to your neighbour when on board an Avanti West Coast Avanti Pendolino then it’s because there is less volume in the carriage. Any passenger discomfort from that ‘being in a submarine’ feel comes from trying to get from Glasgow to London faster around the bends of Scotland and Cumbria. Faster train, sir? Want to spend less time on board, madam? Squeeze in – with no apologies from those early railway builders.
Right now in August and September 2020 those Pendolinos, Voyagers, and Azumas are offering luxurious amounts of passenger space. Under the control of the DfT most seats are not up for sale. Trains are running around half-empty as socially distanced transport. Whilst all the space and comfort is unprecedented, the financial implications are shattering. Someone has to pay the difference. Right now it’s the taxpayer via the Treasury.
So ‘we’re good to go’ say the train companies. Safe to travel. The trains we are safe to travel on are mass open saloon vehicles, almost all with filtered air-conditioning, and with few partitions. In the case of stock like those Thameslink Class 700s, it’s one long snake of a thing where even the connections between the vehicles hardly make a dent in the continuous, 240 metre length of the total twelve-car ‘rake’. From compartments to one continuous space, the evolution is complete. No-one is crowded in right now to a train designed to move massive crowds.
One day Covid-19 will be but a memory. At the moment it’s still playing havoc. Talk is of half a week at home and part of the week in the office. And the railway has to offer ‘safety’ to compete with the soft cocoon of the private car. The fear in the minds of enough passengers is not that they will be isolated with a murdering madman but that they will be with hundreds of other people.
Passenger train design seems never to have responded much to any of the pandemics of the past – the lead-time needed to conceive, design, and build is too long. – But it does try to respond very much to demand levels – to how much commuting the world wants to do – and to how much money is available to travel. It’s a slow evolution.
So maybe all around the world right now, but especially in Great Britain we have the wrong kind of trains. Perhaps our rolling stock needs re-design for a less peaky peak. If the passenger isn’t compelled to take the train every day for work then once again the railway will have to offer a better, more attractive, more comfortable experience. The seating arrangements on a new Intercity Express may have done the job for the passenger who had no choice but to travel. Now absolutely everything may need rethinking to offer more comfort. Perhaps timetables will be reconfigured to be a little less frequent. And for a while there may be enough seats for everyone to sit on. Comfortably or otherwise.
*Pacer – for those not in the know – a four-wheel passenger carriage usually in a two vehicle set designed in the 1980’s but with the ride qualities of pre-Victorian rolling stock.